It’s been said many times that contemporary Hollywood has an imagination problem, relying too heavily on a small number of proven franchises. Eight Harry Potter movies wasn’t enough, so here come four sequels derived from the prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Seemingly every time James Cameron emerges from his hermitage, the estimate of how many Avatar sequels he’s making increases. Very often, extending brands requires fancy footwork. The current Star Trek movies, starring Chris Pine, occupy a different timeline than the one occupied by the original Star Trek TV/movie franchise, even though the late Leonard Nimoy appeared in both iterations, a sort of cross-franchise goodwill ambassador.
Calling this pop-culture cannibalization ridiculous seems too gentle.
But audiences don’t seem to mind, since most of these derivations succeed financially. Clearly, brands matter. But so, too, do myths. In the classic sense, myths convey lessons about big themes: identity, morality, society, etc. Suggesting that this type of significance carries over to modern popcorn epics does not require a leap—what lingers from Raimi’s Spider-Man isn’t just that cool upside-down kiss but also Uncle Ben’s sage counsel, originally penned by Spidey’s co-creator, Stan Lee: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
A lesson from a myth.
So what does it mean when myths become mutable?
If Raimi’s Spider-Man made any sort of impact on viewers, does the de facto erasure of Raimi’s movies diminish their power? There’s a reason that, for example, the legend of Hercules has survived for centuries more or less intact. We retell and unpack enduring stories generation after generation, exploring what it means to be human by dreaming about what responsibilities might accompany the state of being more than human. Seen in that light, what is Uncle Ben’s final warning but a distillation of concepts nearly as old as storytelling itself? And what happens if we ask viewers to flush the old Spider-Man from their memories, because it’s time for a brand-new Spider-Man, along with his brand-new—younger, hotter—Aunt May?
In the blind rush for profit, Hollywood has lost touch with the reason mythological stories work. Particularly when consumed by younger audiences, mythological stories help give a sense of order to the universe. Luke Skywalker redeeming his father, Darth Vader, is a Greek myth with light sabers. Similar remarks can be made about Batman avenging his murdered parents, or Iron Man making amends for his past life as an arms manufacturer.
These stories only matter, however, if they make sense. That’s their whole reason for being, to provide order. So when confusing—and, too often, contradictory—derivations and variants muck up mythology, problems ensue. Superficially, these problems beget cognitive dissonance. On a deeper level, messing with myths degrades modern franchise films from what they could and should be.
Some may recall the tagline for the first modern superhero picture, Superman (1978): “You’ll believe a man can fly.” That was a tall order in the pre-CGI era, but director Richard Donner and his collaborators went for it, big time, rendering an opulent film infused with grandeur and romance and—you guessed it—mythology. Superman was designed to inspire the soul as much as it was designed to thrill the senses.
Donner and his collaborators understood that fantasy movies achieve special magic by merging weight with weightlessness. Think of The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). These films are jaunty and ridiculous, but they’re grounded in meaningful themes. Like myths, they convey lessons. The best of today’s franchise films have this magic, if only fleetingly—Wonder Woman has moments that live up to the adjective in the title, and the climax of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) was memorably poignant—so infusing popcorn entertainment with classic mythological techniques is not a lost art. If Hollywood keeps eating its own, however, it will become an endangered art, and that’s a shame. So consider this an open letter to the industry. With great cinematic power comes great cinematic responsibility.
Laughably overcomplicating the mythology of Alien and the DCEU and the MCU, etc., poorly serves the moviegoing public, and it helps justify warnings of cinema’s impending obsolescence. Digging deeper for original ideas—the kind that inspire cycles of sequels and variants, rather than just perpetuating cycles of sequels and variants—would get Hollywood back to the worthwhile business of doing what it does best: Making magic. Original magic. Because if there’s any principle that needs reinforcement in the era of alternative facts and corporate greed and multiple concurrent Supermen, it’s this: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. MM